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CHAPTER IV

THE SURREY CATTLE-MAIMING MYSTERY


I

"DISGUISE," Malcolm Sage had once re-marked, "is the chief characteristic of the detective of fiction. In actual practise it is rarely possible. I am a case in point. No one but a builder, or an engineer, could disguise the shape of a head like mine;" as he spoke he had stroked the top of his head, which rose above his strongly-marked brows like a down-covered cone.

He maintained that a disguise can always be identified, although not necessarily penetrated. This in itself would be sufficient to defeat the end of the disguised man by rendering him an object of suspicion. Few men can disguise their walk or bearing, no matter how clever they might be with false beards, grease-paint and wigs.

In this Malcolm Sage was a bitter disappointment to William Johnson, the office junior. His conception of the sleuth-hound had been tinctured by the vivid fiction with which he beguiled his spare time.

In the heart of William Johnson there were three great emotions: his hero-worship of Malcolm Sage, his romantic devotion to Gladys Norman, and his wholesome fear of the robustious humour of Tims.

In his more imaginative moments he would create a world in which he was the recognised colleague of Malcolm Sage, the avowed admirer of Miss Norman, and the austere employer of Tims—chauffeurs never took liberties with the hair of their employers, no matter how knut-like it might be worn.

It was with the object of making sure of the first turret of his castle in Spain, that William Johnson devoted himself to the earnest study of what he conceived to be his future profession.

He read voraciously all the detective stories and police-reports he came across. Every moment he could snatch from his official duties he devoted to some scrap of paper, booklet, or magazine. He strove to cultivate his reasoning powers. Never did a prospective client enter the Malcolm Sage Bureau without automatically setting into operation William Johnson's mental induction-coil. With eyes that were covertly keen, he would examine the visitor as he sat waiting for the two sharp buzzes on the private telephone which indicated that Malcolm Sage was at liberty.

It mattered little to William Johnson that error seemed to dog his footsteps; that he had "deduced" a famous pussyfoot admiral as a comedian addicted to drink; a lord, with a ten century lineage, as a man selling something or other; a Cabinet Minister as a company promoter in the worst sense of the term; nothing could damp his zeal.

Malcolm Sage's "cases" he studied as intimately as he could from his position as junior; but they disappointed him. They seemed lacking in that element of drama he found so enthralling in the literature he read and the films he saw.

Malcolm Sage would enter the office as Malcolm Sage, and leave it as Malcolm Sage, as obvious and as easily recognisable as St. Paul's Cathedral. He seemed indifferent to the dramatic possibilities of disguise.

William Johnson longed for some decrepit and dirty old man or woman to enter the Bureau, selling boot-laces or bananas and, on being peremptorily ordered out, to see the figure suddenly straighten itself, and hear his Chief's well-known voice remark, "So you don't recognise me, Johnson—good." There was romance.

He yearned for a "property-room," where executive members of the staff would disguise themselves beyond recognition. In his more imaginative moments he saw come out from that mysterious room a full-blooded Kaffir, whereas he knew that only Thompson had entered.

He would have liked to see Miss Norman shed her pretty brunetteness and reappear as an old apple-woman, who besought him to buy of her wares. He even saw himself being transformed into a hooligan, or a smart R.A.F. officer, complete with a toothbrush moustache and "swish."

In his own mind he was convinced that, given the opportunity, he could achieve greatness as a master of disguise, rivalling the highly-coloured stories of Charles Peace. He had even put his theories to the test.

One evening as Miss Norman, who had been working late, was on her way to Charing Cross Underground Station, she was accosted by a youth with upturned collar, wearing a shabby cap and a queer Charlie Chaplain moustache that was not on straight. In a husky voice he enquired his way to the Strand.

"Good gracious, Johnnie!" she cried involuntarily. "What on earth's the matter?"

A moment later, as she regarded the vanishing form of William Johnson, she wanted to kill herself for her lack of tact.

"Poor little Innocent!" she had murmured as she continued down Villiers Street, and there was in her eyes a reflection of the tears she had seen spring to those of William Johnson, whose first attempt at disguise had proved so tragic a failure.

Neither ever referred to the incident subsequently—although for days William Johnson experienced all the unenviable sensations of Damocles.

From that moment his devotion to Gladys Norman had become almost worship.

But William Johnson was not deterred, either by his own initial failure or his chief's opinion. He resolutely stuck to his own ideas, and continued to expend his pocket-money upon tinted glasses, false-moustaches and grease paint; for hidden away in the inner recesses of his mind was the conviction that it was not quite playing the game, as the game should be played, to solve a mystery or bring a criminal to justice without having recourse to disguise.

It was to him as if Nelson had won the Battle of Trafalgar in a soft hat and a burberry, or Wellington had met Blücher in flannels and silk socks.

Somewhere in the future he saw himself the head of a "William Johnson Bureau," and in the illustrated papers a portrait of "Mr. William Johnson as he is," and beneath it a series of characters that would rival a Dickens novel, with another legend reading, "Mr. William Johnson as he appears."

With these day-dreams, the junior at the Malcolm Sage Bureau would occupy the time when not actually engaged either in the performance of his by no means arduous duties, or in reading the highly-coloured detective stories from which he drew his inspiration.

From behind the glass-panelled door would come the tick-tack of Miss Norman's typewriter, whilst outside droned the great symphony of London, growing into a crescendo as the door was opened, dying away again as it fell to once more, guided by an automatic self-closer.

From these reveries William Johnson would be aroused either by peremptory blasts upon the buzzer of the private-telephone, or by the entry of a client.

One morning, as he was hesitating between assuming the disguise of a naval commander and a street-hawker, a florid little man with purple jowl and a white, bristling moustache hurtled through the swing-door, followed by a tall, spare man, whose clothing indicated his clerical calling.

"Mr. Sage in?" demanded the little man fiercely.

"Mr. Sage is engaged, sir," said the junior, his eyes upon the clergyman, in whose appearance there was something that caused William Johnson to like him on the spot.

"Take my card in to him," said the little, bristly man. "Tell him that General Sir John Hackblock wishes to see him immediately." The tone was suggestive of the parade-ground rather than a London office.

At that moment Gladys Norman appeared through the glass-panelled door. The clergyman immediately removed his hat, the general merely turned as if changing front to receive a new foe.

"Mr. Sage will be engaged for about a quarter of an hour. I am his secretary," she explained. She, also, looked at the general's companion, wondering what sort of teeth were behind that gentle, yet firm mouth. "Perhaps you will take a seat," she added.

This time the clergyman smiled, and Gladys Norman knew that she too liked him. Sir John looked about him aggressively, blew out his cheeks several times, then flopped into a chair. His companion also seated himself, and appeared to become lost in a fit of abstraction.

William Johnson returned to his table and became engrossed, ostensibly in the exploits of an indestructible trailer of men; but really in a surreptitious examination of the two callers.

He had just succeeded in deducing from their manner that they were father and son, and from the boots of the younger that he was low church and a bad walker, when two sharp blasts on the telephone-buzzer brought him to his feet and half-way across the office in what was practically one movement. With Malcolm Sage there were two things to be avoided, delay in answering a summons, and unnecessary words.

"This way, sir," he said, and led them through the glass-panelled door to Malcolm Sage's private room.

With a short, jerky movement of his head Malcolm Sage motioned his visitors to be seated. In that one movement his steel-coloured eyes had registered a mental photograph of the two men. That glance embraced all the details; the dark hair of the younger, greying at the temples, the dreamy grey eyes, the gentle curves of a mouth that was, nevertheless, capable of great sternness, and the spare, almost lean frame; then the self-important, overbearing manner of the older man. "High Anglican, ascetic, out-of-doors," was Malcolm Sage's mental classification of the one, thus unconsciously reversing the William Johnson's verdict. The other he dismissed as a pompous ass.

"You Mr. Sage?" Sir John regarded the bald conical head and gold-rimmed spectacles as if they had been unpolished buttons on parade.

Malcolm Sage inclined his head slightly, and proceeded to gaze down at his fingers spread out on the table before him. After the first appraising glance he rarely looked at a client.

"I am Sir John Hackblock; this is my friend, the Rev. Geoffrey Callice."

Again a slight inclination of the head indicated that Malcolm Sage had heard.

Mr. Llewellyn John would have recognised in Sir John Hackblock the last man in the world who should have been brought into contact with Malcolm Sage. The Prime Minister's own policy had been to keep Malcolm Sage from contact with other Ministers, and thus reduce the number of his embarrassing resignations.

"I want to consult you about a most damnable outrage," exploded the general. "It's inconceivable that in this——"

"Will you kindly be as brief as possible?" said Malcolm Sage, fondling the lobe of his left ear. "I can spare only a few minutes."

Sir John gasped, glared across at him angrily; then, seeming to take himself in hand, continued:

"You've heard of the Surrey cattle-maiming outrages?" he enquired.

Malcolm Sage nodded.

"Well, this morning a brood-mare of mine was found hacked about in an unspeakable manner. Oh, the damn scoundrels!" he burst out as he jumped from his chair and began pacing up and down the room.

"I think it will be better if Mr. Callice tells me the details," said Malcolm Sage, evenly. "You seem a little over-wrought."

"Over-wrought!" cried Sir John. "Over-wrought! Dammit, so would you be if you had lost over a dozen beasts." In the army he was known as "Dammit Hackblock."

Mr. Callice looked across to the general, who, nodding acquiescence, proceeded to blow his nose violently, as if to bid Malcolm Sage defiance.

"This morning a favourite mare belonging to Sir John was found mutilated in a terrible manner——" Mr. Callice paused; there was something in his voice that caused Malcolm Sage to look up. The gentle look had gone from his face, his eyes flashed, and his mouth was set in a stern, severe line.

"Good preacher," Malcolm Sage decided as he dropped his eyes once more, and upon his blotting pad proceeded to develop the Pons Asinorum into a church.

In a voice that vibrated with feeling and suggested great self-restraint, Mr. Callice proceeded to tell the story of the latest outrage. How when found that morning the mare was still alive, of the terrible nature of her injuries, and that the perpetrator had disappeared, leaving no trace.

"Her look, sir! Dammit!" the general broke in. "Her eyes have haunted me ever since. They——" His voice broke, and he proceeded once more to blow his nose violently.

Mr. Callice went on to explain that after having seen the mare put out of her misery, Sir John had motored over to his lodgings and insisted that they should go together to Scotland Yard and demand that something be done.

"Callice is Chairman of the Watchers' Committee," broke in Sir John.

"I should explain," proceeded Mr. Callice, "that some time ago we formed ourselves into a committee to patrol the neighbourhood at night in the hope of tracing the criminal. On the way up Sir John remembered hearing of you in connection with Department Z and, as he was not satisfied with his call at Scotland Yard, he decided to come on here and place the matter in your hands."

"This is the twenty-ninth maiming?" Malcolm Sage remarked, as he proceeded to add a graveyard to the church.

"Yes, the first occurred some two years ago." Then, as if suddenly realising what Malcolm Sage's question implied, he added: "You have interested yourself in the affair?"

"Yes," was the reply. "Tell me what has been done."

"The police seem utterly at fault," continued Mr. Callice. "Locally we have organised watch-parties. My boys and I have been out night after night; but without result. I am a scout-master," he explained.

"The poor beasts' sufferings are terrible," he continued after a slight pause. "It is a return to barbarism;" again there was the throb of indignation in his voice.

"You have discovered nothing?"

"Nothing," was the response, uttered in a tone of deep despondency. "We have even tried bloodhounds; but without result."

"And now I want you to take up the matter, and don't spare expense," burst out Sir John, unable to contain himself longer.

"I will consider the proposal and let you know," said Malcolm Sage, evenly. "As it is, my time is fully occupied at present; but later——" He never lost an opportunity of resenting aggression by emphasising the democratic tendency of the times. Mr. Llewellyn John had called it "incipient Bolshevism."

"Later!" cried Sir John in consternation. "Why, dammit, sir! there won't be an animal left in the county. This thing has been going on for two years now, and those damn fools at Scotland Yard——"

"If it were not for Scotland Yard," said Malcolm Sage quietly, as he proceeded to shingle the roof of the church, the graveyard having proved a failure, "we should probably have to sleep at night with pistols under our pillows."

"Eh!" Sir John looked across at him with a startled expression.

"Scotland Yard is the head-quarters of the most efficient and highly-organised police force in the world," was the quiet reply.

"But, dammit! if they're so clever why don't they put a stop to this torturing of poor dumb beasts?" cried the general indignantly. "I've shown them the man. It's Hinds; I know it. I've just been to see that fellow Wensdale. Why, dammit! he ought to be cashiered, and I told him so."

"Who is Hinds?" Malcolm Sage addressed the question to Mr. Callice.

"He used to be Sir John's head gamekeeper——"

"And I discharged him," exploded the general. "I'll shoot a poacher or his dog; but, dammit! I won't set traps for them," and he puffed out his cheeks aggressively.

"Hinds used to set traps to save himself the trouble of patrolling the preserves," explained Mr. Callice, "and one day Sir John discovered him actually watching the agonies of a dog caught across the hind-quarters in a man-trap." Again there was the wave of feeling in the voice, and a stern set about the mouth.

"It's Hinds right enough," cried the general with conviction. "The man's a brute. Now will you——?"

"I will let you know as soon as possible whether or no I can take up the enquiry," said Malcolm Sage, rising. "I fear that is the best I can promise."

"But——" began Sir John; then he stopped and stared at Malcolm Sage as he moved towards the door.

"Dammit! I don't care what it costs," he spluttered explosively. "It'll be worth five hundred pounds to the man who catches the scoundrel. Poor Betty," he added in a softer tone.

"I will write to you shortly," said Malcolm Sage. There was dismissal in his tone.

With darkened jowl and bristling moustache Sir John strutted towards the door. Mr. Callice paused to shake hands with Malcolm Sage, and then followed the general, who, with a final glare at William Johnson, as he held open the swing-door, passed out into the street, convinced that now the country was no longer subject to conscription it would go rapidly to the devil.

For the next half-hour Malcolm Sage pored over a volume of press-cuttings containing accounts of previous cattle-maimings.

Following his usual custom in such matters, he had caused the newspaper accounts of the various mutilations to be collected and pasted in a press-cutting book. Sooner or later he had determined to devote time to the affair.

Without looking up from the book he pressed three times in rapid succession a button of the private-telephone. Instantly Gladys Norman appeared, note-book in hand. She had been heard to remark that if she were dead "three on the buzzer" would bring her to life again.

"Whitaker and Inspector Wensdale," said Malcolm Sage, his eyes still on the book before him.

When deep in a problem Malcolm Sage's economy in words made it difficult for anyone but his own staff to understand his requirements.

Without a word the girl vanished and, a moment later, William Johnson placed Whitaker's Almanack on the table, then he in turn disappeared as silently as Gladys Norman.

Malcolm Sage turned to the calendar, and for some time studied the pages devoted to the current month (June) and July. As he closed the book there were three buzzes from the house-telephone, the signal that he was through to the number required. Drawing the pedestal-instrument towards him, he put the receiver to his ear.

"That Inspector Wensdale?—Yes! Mr. Sage speaking. It's about the cattle-maiming business.—I've just heard of it.—I've not decided yet. I want a large-scale map of the district, with the exact spot of each outrage indicated, and the date.—To-morrow will do.—Yes, come round. Give me half an hour with the map first."

Malcolm Sage replaced the receiver as the buzzer sounded, announcing another client.


II

"So there is nothing?" Malcolm Sage looked up enquiringly from the map before him.

"Nothing that even a stage detective could turn into a clue," said Inspector Wensdale, a big, cleanshaven man with hard, alert eyes.

Malcolm Sage continued his study of the map.

"Confound those magazine detectives!" the inspector burst out explosively. "They've always got a dust-pan full of clues ready made for 'em."

"To say nothing of finger-prints," said Malcolm Sage dryly. He never could resist a sly dig at Scotland Yard's faith in finger-prints as clues instead of means of identification.

"It's a bit awkward for me, too, Mr. Sage," continued the inspector, confidentially. "Last time The Daily Telegram went for us because——"

"You haven't found a dust-pan full of clues?" suggested Malcolm Sage, who was engaged in forming geometrical designs with spent matches.

"They're getting a bit restive, too, at the Yard," he continued. He was too disturbed in mind for flippancy. "It was this cattle-maiming business that sent poor old Scott's number up," he added, referring to Detective Inspector Scott's failure to solve the mystery. "Now the general's making a terrible row. Threatens me with the Commissioner."

For some seconds Malcolm Sage devoted himself to his designs.

"Any theory?" he enquired at length, without looking up.

"I've given up theorising," was the dour reply.

In response to a further question as to what had been done, the inspector proceeded to detail how the whole neighbourhood had been scoured after each maiming, and how, night after night, watchers had been posted throughout the district, but without result.

"I have had men out night and day," continued the inspector gloomily. "He's a clever devil whoever he is. It's my opinion the man's a lunatic," he added.

Malcolm Sage looked up slowly.

"What makes you think that?" he asked.

"His cunning, for one thing," was the reply. "Then it's so senseless. No," he added with conviction, "he's no more an ordinary man than Jack-the-Ripper was."

He went on to give details of his enquiries among those living in the district. There was absolutely nothing to attach even the remotest suspicion to any particular person. Rewards had been offered for information; but all without producing the slightest evidence or clue.

"This man Hinds?" enquired Malcolm Sage, looking about for more matches.

"Oh! the general's got him on the brain. Absolutely nothing in it. I've turned him inside out. Why, even the Deputy Commissioner had a go at him, and if he can get nothing out of a man, there's nothing to get out."

"Well," said Malcolm Sage rising, "keep the fact to yourself that I am interested. I suppose, if necessary, you could arrange for twenty or thirty men to run down there?" he queried.

"The whole blessed Yard if you like, Mr. Sage," was the feeling reply.

"We'll leave it at that for the present then. By the way, if you happen to think you see me in the neighbourhood you needn't remember that we are acquainted."

The inspector nodded comprehendingly and, with a heart lightened somewhat of its burden, he departed. He had an almost child-like faith in Malcolm Sage.

For half an hour Malcolm Sage sat engrossed in the map of the scene of the maimings. On it were a number of red-ink crosses with figures beneath. In the left-hand bottom corner was a list of the various outrages, with the date and the time, as near as could be approximated, against each.

The numbers in the bottom corner corresponded with those beneath the crosses.

From time to time he referred to the two copies of Whitaker's Almanack open before him, and made notes upon the writing-pad at his side. Finally he ruled a square upon the map in red ink, and then drew two lines diagonally from corner to corner. Then without looking up from the map, he pressed one of the buttons of the private-telephone. "Tims," he said through the mouthpiece.

Five minutes later Malcolm Sage's chauffeur was standing opposite his Chief's table, ready to go anywhere and do anything.

"To-morrow will be Sunday, Tims."

"Yessir."

"A day of rest."

"Yessir!"

"We are going out to Hempdon, near Selford," Malcolm Sage continued, pointing to the map. Tims stepped forward and bent over to identify the spot. "The car will break down. It will take you or any other mechanic two hours to put it right."

"Yessir," said Tims, straightening himself.

"You understand," said Malcolm Sage, looking at him sharply, "you or any other mechanic?"

"Yessir," repeated Tims, his face sphinx-like in its lack of expression.

He was a clean-shaven, fleshless little man who, had he not been a chauffeur, would probably have spent his life with a straw between his teeth, hissing lullabies to horses.

"I shall be ready at nine," said Malcolm Sage, and with another "Yessir" Tims turned to go.

"And Tims."

"Yessir." He about-faced smartly on his right heel. "You might apologise for me to Mrs. Tims for depriving her of you on Sunday. Take her out to dinner on Monday and charge it to me."

"Thank you, sir, very much, sir," said Tims, his face expressionless.

"That is all, Tims, thank you."

Tims turned once more and left the room. As he walked towards the outer door he winked at Gladys Norman and, with a sudden dive, made a frightful riot of William Johnson's knut-like hair. Then, without change of expression, he passed out to tune up the car for its run on the morrow.

Malcolm Sage's staff knew that when "the Chief" was what Tims called "chatty" he was beginning to see light, so Tims whistled loudly at his work: for he, like all his colleagues, was pleased when "the Chief" saw reason to be pleased.

The following morning, as they trooped out of church, the inhabitants of Hempdon were greatly interested in the break-down of a large car, which seemed to defy the best efforts of the chauffeur to coax into movement. The owner drank cider at the Spotted Woodpigeon and talked pleasantly with the villagers, who, on learning that he had never even heard of the Surrey cattle-maimings, were at great pains to pour information and theories into his receptive ear.

The episode quite dwarfed the remarkable sermon preached by Mr. Callice, in which he exhorted his congregation to band themselves together to track down him who was maiming and torturing God's creatures, and defying the Master's merciful teaching.

It was Tom Hinds, assisted by a boy scout, who conducted Malcolm Sage to the scene of the latest outrage. It was Hinds who described the position of the mare when she was discovered, and it was he who pocketed two half-crowns as the car moved off Londonwards.

That evening Malcolm Sage sat long and late at his table, engrossed in the map that Inspector Wensdale had sent him.

Finally he subjected to a thorough and exhaustive examination the thumb-nail of his right hand. It was as if he saw in its polished surface the tablets of destiny.

The next morning he wrote a letter that subsequently caused Sir John Hackblock to explode into a torrent of abuse of detectives in general and one investigator in particular. It stated in a few words that, owing to circumstances over which he had no control, Malcolm Sage would not be able to undertake the enquiry with which Sir John Hackblock had honoured him until the end of the month following. He hoped, however, to communicate further with his client soon after the 23rd of that month.